Sunday, November 1, 2020

Drone technology helps boost healthcare supply chains in Africa


As we grapple with the Covid-19 crisis, African countries are not only using drone technology to bring educational messages directly to residents by air but are also offering a lifesaving solution to the challenges faced by people who live hard to reach areas.

In a presentation at the recent Africa Supply Chain in Action virtual conference, which was hosted by The Professional Body for Supply Chain Management (Sapics) and Smart Procurement, Freddy Nkosi, DRC’s Director for VillageReach, shared the Drones for Health success story.

VillageReach is a non-governmental organisation that is striving to improve communities’ access to healthcare and life-saving medicines and vaccines in remote rural areas in developing countries.

In the DRC, with funding from Gavi (The Vaccine Alliance), VillageReach, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the Civil Aviation Authority of the DRC, is using drones to transport vaccines and other supplies to isolated villages and communities.

Nkosi said that the Drones for Health project is being piloted in the DRC’s northwest province of Équateur. “This is a province with many geographical challenges. It has 18 health districts, more than half of which are only accessible by river. This makes the supply chain and transportation of vaccines from the provincial storage to the remote health storage facilities exceedingly difficult, especially during the rainy season when there is often flooding, “he said.

A round trip to the Équateur province, which involves taking a non-motorised boat down a river, can take up to six hours. The drones completed the one-way journey in just 20 minutes, flying up to 80km at a speed of up to 115km per hour.

Nkosi explains that the drones are only being deployed for the hardest to reach locations in the DRC, which are inaccessible by vehicle. He noted that studies were also underway to assess the affordability of drones versus conventional transport in other areas. He notes that

“The technology is still developing, so we can expect fewer limitations in the future. While our drones can fly up to 80km, we are setting up ‘refilling stations’ to reach health facilities beyond 80km. For instance, if the health facility is located 400km from the distribution centre or warehouse, there will be five stations where the drone will land after 80km and the local team will change the battery to enable the drone to fly to the next station,” said the Director.

Since the drones do not include cameras, Nkosi highlighted that privacy is not an issue, and to date, there have been no safety problems. He believes that it is only a matter of time before many countries and communities adopt drones for deliveries, even in urban areas.

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